It’s not easy for most of us to sit with silence. Like “dead air” on the radio, it just doesn’t seem right. It may seem as if nothing is happening and time is wasted. When someone is considering or planning the process of change, silence is essential. It allows space for the internal work necessary for real shifts in attitudes and behaviors.
I’ve begun to realize that you can
listen to silence and learn from it.
It has a quality and a dimension all its own.
Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.
Leonardo da Vinci
When silence is useful:
- After open questions. It may be tempting to follow up a question with examples or to expect a quick answer. A straightforward open question stated with the minimum of words is the most effective. It encourages the person to go inside and let the information or answer bubble to the surface. This process is not instant. Simple, closed questions can be answered easily and quickly. The best open questions settle in and require the person to synthesize various facts, memories and emotions. This takes time. Given time, the result will be profoundly useful. (See Tip #60 for examples of powerful open questions.)
- After a complex reflection that gets the client’s attention. These powerful reflections will naturally require much more time to take in than simple reflections. There may be some rearranging going on in the client’s brain. Let it happen. (More on powerful reflections in Tip #95.) Next month’s Tip will explore how to make our reflections more complex.
- After a client has realized something important or has an insight. You don’t have to do anything right away. First, allow it to sink in. Notice the client focusing inside. After a bit, when you see the client reconnect with you, you might reflect or affirm the insight.
Assume something is happening in the silence. If you wait long enough, the client will likely tell you what is going on. If not, and you can’t tell by facial expression, ask. Examples: “Your thoughts?” “What is your response to that?” “How does that sit with you?”
Are you ready to stretch yourself a bit about silence? As with any change, the first step is observation. What are the moments when you feel pressure to fill silence? Perhaps it is after open questions. If so, which are your favorite open questions? Perhaps jot down a few and then use these familiar ones as a trigger to notice what you do after asking them. If it is something besides open silence, challenge yourself to just ask the question as clearly as possible and then wait. Notice what happens.
If you realize that you tend to quickly fill any silence or if an ongoing client always seems to have a lot of silence, ask for feedback. This is a good idea with all ongoing clients and can include concrete questions about whether the client is getting the information he needs and is heading toward his stated goals. Include a question about the quiet times. This could be posed as a question about pacing. “Do I jump in too quickly?” “Might you need a bit more time to think?” (See Tip #4, Asking Your Client for Ideas and Direction.)
Cultures view silence in very different ways. For example, for most Native Americans silence is highly respected and it is expected that questions will be considered quietly. For others, silence may mean the client is not following you or believes there is no permission to speak. Ask to find out more about this client’s experience.
Finally, what of your own assumptions about silence are holding you back? If you are uncomfortable with silence, ask yourself, “What do I fear will happen if I don’t jump in?” Clarify your response to this, perhaps even with a slight exaggeration. For example, “I’m afraid the client will think I don’t know what I am talking about and I’m stupid.” Or “The client will be uncomfortable and think I am putting her on the spot.” Maybe even write down your fear, then look at it. How realistic does it seem? Reality-check by looking at the client’s face or body language or ask her.